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Forget BMI: Are You 'Skinny Fat?'

In a recent survey only 45 percent of Americans strongly agree that body weight is an indicator of a healthy diet, and you know what? They're right. In fact, body weight isn't a good indicator of health period. Over the years I’ve worked with many thin, extremely unhealthy clients, and some of the thinnest people I know are the least healthy — smokers with atrocious diets who never exercise and are 'skinny fat,' meaning they have a high body fat percentage even though their weight is low or normal for their height.

In a new study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, researchers found that among more than 15,000 patients, for those with a "normal, healthy" body mass index (or BMI) who carried excess belly fat, the risk of dying was as great as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day or having very high cholesterol. But those with BMIs in the "overweight" or "obese" category weren’t automatically at risk. In reality where you carry your weight and your day-to-day lifestyle are the true keys to optimal wellness.

I’m not advocating ignoring your weight altogether or disregarding your BMI, but those numbers are just a few pieces of a much bigger puzzle. To better grasp your health ask yourself these 10 questions — the more that you answer yes, the better:

•Do you consistently eat 2 servings (think size of a baseball each) of fruit and 3 of veggies every day?

•Do you consistently eat whole grains (brown rice, quinoa, whole grain bread) and limit refined grains (white bread and rice, sweets) daily?

•Do you consistently limit your intake of processed and fried foods and animal fats?

•Are you consistently physically active at least 30 minutes 5 days a week?

•Do you consistently get at least 7 hours of sleep each night?

•Would you describe your stress level as moderate to low? 

•Is your waist measurement below 35 inches (women) or 40 inches (men)?

•Are you a non-smoker?

•Do you have a strong social support network?

•Are you more focused on how you feel (energy, strength, vitality) rather than your size or weight?

Many of my clients prioritize weight, and as a result are willing to engage in behaviors that worsen their health. But those 'skinny fat' habits, like skipping meals, smoking, or using diet pills, are major health traps that can speed up the aging process and squash your quality of life. Bottom line: you don’t have to smash your scale, but don’t be ruled by it.

Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.


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